The New Fight to Ban the Veil

As a prestigious Islamic university in Egypt makes a bold move to bar women from covering their faces, The Daily Beast’s Asra Nomani reports on a frightening brand of Islam taking hold among young girls.

For all those politically correct folks who wonder whether it’s OK to ban Muslim women from wearing the face veil, consider this headline on the front page of The Daily Times, a leading English newspaper in Pakistan: “Al-Azhar Plans to Ban Face Veil.”

Yes, indeed, the news spreading through the Muslim world is this: Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of Islamic theology in mainstream Sunni Muslim circles, is planning to ban its female students from covering their faces with the face veil, commonly called the “niqab.” Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported this week that while touring a high school affiliated with Al-Azhar in a suburb of Cairo, Grand Imam Sayyed Tantawi got “angry” when he saw a student wearing a face veil and ordered her to take it off, declaring “The niqab is a tradition. It has no connection with religion.” Interestingly, he was there to educate students about swine flu, or H1N1.

When my mother arrived at the Nampally train station, my paternal grandmother, a feminist before her time, yanked off the veil covering my mother’s face. It was a shocking moment.

The newspaper said security officials have been given verbal orders to ban girls and women from entering Al-Azhar campuses if they cover their faces, and that Egypt’s minister of higher education, Hani Helal, had decided to ban students from wearing the niqab. The press attaché at the Embassy of Egypt in Washington, DC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Why the ban? The same reason that security officials from Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles to Michigan’s judicial court consider the face veil a problem: It’s a security risk. Indeed, from Islamabad to Baghdad, the face veil has been used by militants to escape police action, stage attacks, and feign identities. Most importantly, the face veil represents a frightening brand of Islam that is taking hold even among young girls. It preaches a literal translation of the Koran that becomes troublesome when applied to problematic verses—which are used by militants to sanction domestic violence, intolerance, and even suicide bombings.

But in the name of cultural relativism, many in the West have given the face veil a pass under principles of religious freedom. But it’s an edict of only the most hardcore of Muslims, typically those adhering to the rigid schools of interpretation called Wahhabism and Salafism. On many accounts, groups espousing these ideas essentially represent the KKK wing of Islam.

Strict Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam have increasingly crept into societies from Cairo to California since the early 1970s, fueled by petrodollars in Saudi Arabia, and promulgated by political Islam movements with slick marketing campaigns, sophisticated strategic communications strategies, and powerful publishing houses based in cities such as Riyadh. Over the last decade, I have witnessed more women covering their faces in veils from the suburbs of northern Virginia to my hometown in Morgantown, West Virginia, where women walk up and down the aisles of the Wal-Mart in full niqab.

The Koranic verse being interpreted by hardliners to veil women is chapter 33, verse 59. In The Noble Qur’an, a translation by Muhammad Al-Hilali, a professor of Islam, and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, there are all sorts of parenthetical phrases and examples inserted in the passage in order to say women have to “screen themselves completely.” Their full translation is: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed.” That book is published by none other than the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

But in a reflection of the divergent views of the same verse, in The Qur’an, Lebanese scholar Tarif Khalidi translates the same section to read: “O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters and women believers to wrap their outer garments closely around them, for this makes it more likely that they will be recognized and not be harassed.” This translation was first published last year by London-based Penguin Groups.

In parts of the West, rightly so, politicians such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy oppose the niqab. Earlier this year, Sarkozy said the face veil was “not welcome” in France. “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," he said. "That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity.”

But by taking a tough stand, he and others have raised the ire of the politically correct, stoked by even mainstream Muslims who try to protect their ban by invoking the principles of religious freedom. Ironically, in most of their ideological interpretations, Muslims who consider the face veil a religious requirement don’t themselves practice religious freedom. Rather, they often pin the “apostate” label on Muslims and others who don’t agree with their point of view.

It is time to ban the face veil worldwide. It is the external expression of an ideology of Islam that needs to go.

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In the early 1960s, as a teen in Mumbai, my mother, Sajida Nomani, dared to take off the face veil that her family required her to wear when she went to school on the campus of Nirmala Nikaten, a women’s college. When her driver ratted her out, her conservative family, afraid of the precedent set, balked at sending mother’s younger female relatives to college.

Soon after, my rebellious mother was married off to my father. When my mother arrived at the Nampally train station in Hyderabad, my paternal grandmother, a feminist before her time, yanked off the veil covering my mother’s face. It was a shocking moment. “I felt naked,” my mother told me. But in that moment something else more important was stripped away from her: an ideology that hyper-sexualizes women and deprives them of the simple joy of feeling the sun on their face or the wind in their hair.

In our new life in America, my mother never forced upon me an interpretation of Islam that said I had to cover my face or even my hair. She herself was free forever from the veil or a head covering.

Interpretations requiring women to cover their hair in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been part of a wider ethos that sexualizes women and puts the moral order of the world upon our shoulders, quite literally. It’s a disturbing pattern that leads to women carrying the burden of the honor of a community. At its most tolerant, it leads to gossip and condemnation; at its worst, to honor killings.

Despite the arguments of even some Muslim women that the veil is a proud expression of piety and identity, for me it is an anachronism and control mechanism that ties a woman’s personal appearance to the dignity and honor of her community.

Like my mother at the train station that day in Hyderabad, I hope our world can be free of such Taliban interpretations of Islam, and if anyone needs permission to think the politically incorrect, know we have gotten a de facto fatwa from Al-Azhar University to take off the face veil.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam and teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women’s rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She can be found on Facebook, and reached at [email protected]